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Crime & Courts

Prosecutor and defendant appeal judge’s ruling

8th circuit 1920 1080

A federal judge in Aberdeen has refused to accept a plea agreement, and as part of that ruling, he would not allow the prosecutor to dismiss four of the five charges against the defendant.

That has led to the strange situation of a prosecutor and a defendant coming together to appeal a judge’s decision.

Judge Charles Kornmann said in his ruling late last year that the plea agreement limited his sentencing option to 15 years for a ruthless attack.

The federal prosecutor said there are no valid reasons in this case that allow the judge to refuse to dismiss charges.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on Wednesday, March 16, in Saint Paul.

Tiffany Bernard was indicted in October 2020 for her role in an assault that left the victim permanently disabled, with part of his skull missing. The victim lost his memory and spent six months in a hospital learning to walk and talk.

Bernard and three codefendants agreed to plead guilty to robbery and aiding and abetting in exchange for dismissal of other charges that included assault with the intent to murder.

In his refusal to accept the plea agreement, Judge Charles Kornmann noted that the victim was particularly vulnerable because he didn’t speak English and so couldn’t comprehend the danger he faced.

Kornmann noted that Tiffany Bernard had been the ringleader, that lethal weapons were used in the attack, and that the victim had been abducted.

At oral arguments before the Eighth Circuit, Tiffany Bernard and the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota were represented by lawyers, both arguing on the same side.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Kelderman told appellate judges that Judge Kornmann essentially was forcing the prosecution to go to trial on a case it might not win. He said the judge has that power only if the prosecutor acted in bad faith.

“And the law is clear, under Rule 48, the dismissal may not be denied unless there is some improper motive, and none has been shown here, and there is none in the record,” Kelderman said.

On the other side, Landon Magnusson said the judge has the authority to deny a plea agreement, and in this case, the dismissal of charges is part of that agreement.

He said by dismissing the majority of charges, the prosecutor limited the judge to a sentencing range of 15 years.

“They’re saying, ‘You know, Your Honor, we understand that it’s your discretion ultimately to decide what this individual deserves as a sentence, but we think that, even despite all these charges that we brought in the beginning, that you’re not allowed to give her more than a 15-year sentence,’” Magnusson said.

The panel of three Eighth Circuit judges will deliberate and issue its ruling later.